Lynn Shelton on Bad Guys, Improvising, and What It’s Like to Direct Mad Men

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
June 18 2012 8:34 AM

A Conversation With Lynn Shelton

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Lynn Shelton

Photo by Toby Canham/Getty Images for Vanity Fair

After building a career in film editing and then directing a few short and feature films, Lynn Shelton garnered big raves for Humpday, her 2009 comedy about two male friends (Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard) who decide to make a gay porn film together, even though one of them is married and both are straight. This week, she returns to the big screen with Your Sister’s Sister, a romantic comedy starring Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt as half-sisters and Duplass as a friend whose feelings for both sisters becomes complicated when he spends a few days with them at their family cabin. Slate spoke to Shelton about how she imbues characters with humanity, why she loves working with Mark Duplass, and what it was like to direct an episode of Mad Men.

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

Slate: Your Sister’s Sister is similar to Humpday in that both films are about interlopers: There’s an intimate relationship between two people, and then a third person comes in and changes it. What draws you to that kind of dynamic?

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Lynn Shelton: I’m really fascinated by the self and how our selves shift and change over time and in relationship to different people. We have a perception of who we think we are and expectations about who we believe we are. And then we get into certain circumstances where those beliefs and those expectations and that perception are challenged, and I’m fascinated by that: when people so want to connect to each other—like, let’s say a couple of sisters who would just love nothing more than to have the most uncomplicated bond—and yet they just can’t. You know the way that siblings or your own family can push your buttons more than anybody else? There’s all this stuff that keeps rising up to obstruct what should be a really simple connection to another person.

We’re all flawed, and we all make mistakes, and we all have weaknesses. And those are the kind of people I want to see onscreen, the ones that feel like real flesh-and-blood human beings and not the weird, whitewashed, Hollywood stand-ins for people with the rough edges sanded off that I can’t connect to because they just don’t resonate with me.

Slate: Your movies don’t really have bad guys. Did you ever consider having actual antagonists?

Shelton: I’m looking for the humanity in everybody, and I want to reveal that humanity. So for instance, when you first meet Andrew, the interloper in Humpday, he turns a lot of people off, because he comes on so brash and over the top, and you’re like, “God, who is this guy?” And then over the course of the movie, you gain sympathy for him, and I love that.

And the same thing sort of happens for Mark’s character, Jack, in this movie, too. When you first meet him, it’s like, “Ooh, God, what’s he doing? He’s ruining this party, he seems to be completely insulting his dead brother—what is going on?” But he’s in so much pain, and you can see that he really loved his brother more than anybody else there.

I want the audience to sympathize with the characters and empathize with them. If somebody in this movie says, “I’m a really bad person,” I want the audience to think, “No, you’re not! You’re not a really bad person, you’re just a fuck-up, as we all are.” And I want people to feel for them as much as I do, despite their missteps and maybe terrible mistakes that they make along the way.

Slate: To what extent was Your Sister’s Sister improvised?

Shelton: So many people have said this, but it’s true: 95 percent of what I do as a director is casting and getting people who can bear the load of what you’re asking them to do and creating this emotionally safe environment. With Humpday, it was a ten-page outline with no dialogue written at all. The structure was in place, I knew what I needed to take place in every scene—I wasn’t just making it up as I went along. Then how the scenes got there is I just turned the cameras on and let the actors find their way. And ultimately the final draft is written in the edit room. You could have made 150 different movies out of the footage we shot, because there are so many different choices that they give me in terms of the beats and how it unfolds.

But in the case of Your Sister’s Sister, I actually had about 70 pages of dialogue written out, because I didn’t have two veteran improvisers—I had one veteran improviser and two actors who were not used to working this way, and so I wanted them to have a sort of jumping-off point. A security blanket, if you will. So if they liked a line, they could feel free to use it. But I didn’t want them to hold the lines too closely or hold even to the structure of the way the scene was going.

Slate: Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt play half-sisters in Your Sister’s Sister, and it’s not made clear till halfway through the movie why one of them is speaking with an American accent and the other is speaking with a British accent. Was that something that you originally envisioned for the characters, or did you just want the actors to be comfortable and not have to worry about doing an accent?

Shelton: Improvising is hard enough as it is, especially if you’re not used to doing it. I’m looking for absolute naturalism. I’m asking the actors to find the overlap between themselves and the characters. Which is what actors do anyway: They look for ways that they can relate directly to the experience of whatever character they’re playing. But I’m asking them to do it even more, because they have to come up with the words, they have to come up with their own dialogue. So I definitely didn’t want Emily to have to worry about maintaining an American accent.

The funny thing is that Rose actually replaced another actress who was British, so originally they were both British. But they were always supposed to be half-sisters. I really liked the idea that the beginning of the relationship between these two people started with a point of friction because the older sister, her father is taken away from her by the pregnancy of the younger sister’s mother. What a great launching point—even though they’ve bonded later on in life and they’ve figured out how to have a deep relationship, that was the starting point of their sisterly relationship. And I think it actually would have been even more confusing if they’d had an American dad but had both been British.

And so due to the fact that one of them’s American, at the beginning of the movie you’re wondering why they have different accents, and your ears are sort of pricked up waiting for the explanation. So when it comes, I feel like you’re actually more tuned into the rest that comes with it: Oh, I see, they only share a dad, and they have two moms, and they only spent summers together, and there’s this age difference. You’re sort of ready to receive all that because you’ve been waiting around for the explanation.

Slate: You’ve cast Mark Duplass in two movies now. How did you meet him?

Shelton: I first heard about Mark from our mutual friend Joe Swanberg. I met Joe on the regional festival circuit back in 2006. I was on the circuit with my first feature, We Go Way Back, and he was with his second feature, LOL. And he was about to shoot Hannah Takes the Stairs, which had Mark in it, and he was really high on Mark. Joe was like, “Working with him is amazing,” so I’d already had this buildup.

Then about a year later, Mark came to Seattle to star in a film called True Adolescence, which is another indie film by this director Craig Johnson, so I volunteered to be a set photographer for a few days basically so I could have the opportunity to meet Mark and hopefully bond with him. And we really hit it off right away—we were both primed to meet each other, and all we could talk about was how to put movies together and how not to wait around for permission to make our films and our philosophies of working with actors and how to work with improv.

I was just in love with him as an actor by the end of that experience. He was so engaged and passionate and excited to try; he wanted to make every single take feel completely fresh. He would stick to the script—it was a scripted film—but then he would ask to go off, too, and he was so good at that. And he also was very generous: He really brings out the best in his costars in a scene. So everything I wanted in an actor. And right before he left town, I said, “I would really like to direct you in something,” and he was like, “Pitch me something.” So I called him about a month later with this crazy idea for Humpday, and it was just a very satisfying experience. And we both got a lot out of that film: He got a TV show, and I got a career. So we were very excited to do it again.

Slate: How did you end up directing an episode of Mad Men?

Shelton: Well, Scott Hornbacher is one of the executive producers, and he had seen Humpday and liked it. So we had a meeting, and he said, “Look, I’m going to try to show Matt Humpday”—Matthew Weiner, the creator—“but it’s going to be hard because he’s very busy.” So I didn’t hear anything for a while, and I thought, well, that was a nice idea. Then I got this call that Matthew wanted to meet with me. I’d been trying to get TV work, because I think there’s a lot of great TV, and Mad Men was my absolute all-time favorite TV show ever, and I couldn’t believe that it would really happen.

It was sort of a surreal thing—just to meet. Sitting for an hour and half in Matt’s office with him, I thought, “Well, if nothing comes of this, at least I got to do this.” I also think it was lucky timing because they needed someone to fill in for an episode that they lost a director on. And boy, did I luck out. Because that script, man. I could not believe the stuff that happened in that episode.

Slate: Yeah, it was momentous—so many important things happened.

Shelton: When I describe it to people, they always ask which episode it was. And I’m like, “OK, well, Joan tells Roger she’s pregnant, and then the feds come to do a security clearance check on Don Draper, and he has a panic attack and thinks he’s having a heart attack, and then Lane’s dad comes and they have a psychodrama. And we had to recreate the 1965 Playboy Club.” Then I just remembered yesterday, because I had totally forgotten this, but one of my favorite scenes in the whole episode is Lucky Strike backing out on Roger. So every single scene in that was just incredible. So fun.

Slate: What was it like working with the actors for that? They obviously were playing characters that they’d been working with for a long time.

Shelton: Exactly! It was the first time I ever did a project where these people had not signed up to work with me. I don’t think they knew who the hell I was. Seriously, they were so lovely, and so professional. One of the things that was great about that experience is I got to work with so many of them. The one heartbreak was that I didn’t get to work with Lizzy at all, Elisabeth Moss, because she wasn’t in my episode. That’s my little princess complaint, because I love her so much.

But there was such a variety pack of actors—and it was just a reminder of how every single actor has a completely different process, and that’s why I love working with them. I’d so much rather be in with my sleeves rolled up, in the muck with the actors trying to figure out what the scene is and how to get the shape of it. I often think of a drawer of keys, like weird skeleton keys, and you’re looking for the right key for how to unlock this particular actor’s ability to bring the best, to find that moment or that scene. You want it as a director, to figure the way to unlock it for them or help them unlock it. I love it so much because I started as an actor. And I loved it. I was addicted to it. But it became an unhealthy exercise for me. I don’t know exactly why, but it was just turned into something that wasn’t healthy for me.

I feel like this is the way I was meant to interact with acting. Which is as a director, and helping, working with actors to find their way. Facilitating their performances is so satisfying for me.

Slate: Can you tell me about your upcoming movie Touchy Feely?

Shelton: It’s such a departure from the last few movies I’ve done. I’ve done three movies in a row with three characters and one location in a condensed period of time, like a long weekend. And I love that, I love that chamber piece, bare-bones, little microcosmic paradigm for film. But I wanted to break out and see what I could do with multiple storylines and an ensemble cast and something a bit more expansive in multiple locations and with a tiny bit more time. Although Your Sister’s Sister was a twelve-day shoot, and this was a twenty-day shoot, we had so many more locations and so many more characters and so many more scenes that it actually felt like we were working faster than Your Sister’s Sister.

I wrote two roles for specific actors: Rosemarie DeWitt plays a massage therapist who can’t do her job because she develops a sudden repulsion around the human body, poor dear, so she goes into an identity crisis and journey of the soul. Her brother is played by this incredible actor Josh Pais, and he is a dentist, and they have a very spicy—to say the least—relationship. And he goes into his own journey of self-discovery in another direction that I want to keep mysterious. And they have a sort of tug-of-war over this person in their lives who they both care about very deeply, Josh’s daughter and Rose’s niece, who’s played by Ellen Page. She is in an unhealthily codependent relationship with her father, who relies on her heavily, and it’s clear that she’s kind of sacrificing her own life in service to his. So Rose’s character is really trying to get her out of that situation. That’s the dysfunctional family center. And Scoot McNairy, this wonderful actor who’s about to blow up, is the boyfriend of Rose’s character, and Ellen kind of has a little crush on him. The cast is rounded out by Allison Janney, who plays a mentor and a friend to Rose—and then Ron Livingston is a kind of mystery man: He has just a couple of scenes, but really key scenes, near the end.

There’s a real mix of straight-up drama with more clearly comedic scenes, and it has a very different feeling to me than my most recent work. I’m really excited to be in the throes of it. I’m doing the editing myself, and I’m about two or three weeks into the edit, so it’s in the rough phase. That’s where I’ll be spending my time: in my little edit room for the rest of the summer.

This interview has been edited and condensed.